The Overwatch League continues to stumble through a proverbial hallway filled with mousetraps as one of its best teams released literally every player on its 2020 roster. Rumors in the Overwatch League social media sphere for weeks hinted at trouble behind the scenes with the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals runner-up Vancouver Titans, with players vague-tweeting their unhappiness during a season stymied by COVID-19 worldwide. The rumors came to a head yesterday when it was announced by Tim Holloway, Esports Director of Aquilini Entertainment–parent company owner of the Titans–that the team has come to terms with the mutually agreed release of its entire roster, save for one player that was terminated “for cause” according to a report by Kotaku.
In a season marred by canceled homestands and a glut of player retirements–including last year’s league MVP Jay “Sinatraa” Won announcing he was quitting Overwatch in order to make the jump to Riot’s new shooter Valorant–the release of an entire team, and a beloved one at that, is almost bewildering. The Titans roster was comprised of the beloved Korean Overwatch Contenders team Runaway, whose domination of their division while being the constant underdog made them the hottest commodity in Overwatch esports. The 2018 OWL team expansion announcement came along with the news that Vancouver had signed the entirety of Runaway, bringing with them an instant fan base and pedigree of expected success.
That success came immediately, with the Titans posting a record-breaking 25-3 record and fighting their way to the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals, only to lose 4-0 to the Sinatraa-led San Francisco Shock in a complete route. The narrative–unfairly–was that the bullies of Overwatch League had been rightly punched in the mouth and that their reign of terror across the league was over.
And it was, just not in the way everyone expected. The once-plucky underdogs turned titans of the league were one of many teams at the start of the 2020 Overwatch League season whose schedule was changed completely in light of the growing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Homestands that were once expected to be filled with excited fans became canceled events, which later became online-only matches. The logistics of matchmaking is one reason cited by Holloway in the letter to fans announcing the release of HyoJong “HakSal” Kim, Minsoo “Seominsoo” Seo, Seongjun “Slime” Kim, Chunghee “Stitch” Lee, Juseok “Twilight” Lee, JeHong “RyuJeHong” Yu, Yangwon “Yang1” Kweon (coach), Jae Hong “Andante” Hwang (coach), and star tank Chan Hyeong “Fissure” Baek.
“The time difference made it difficult for management and the home fanbase to connect with the team and technical challenges for the players playing from home further exacerbated the situation,” said Halloway in the letter. The Kotaku report paints a different picture, with anonymous sources that spoke to the outlet saying that the North American organization wasn’t equipped to handle an all-Korean roster and never attempted to help the team acclimate to the difficulties of living in a different country, let alone during a worldwide pandemic. The team lived at a training facility in Vancouver, British Columbia
“A lot of these teams, especially the Korean ones, have/had support staff on-site who were capable of helping the players to adjust to living in an unfamiliar area,” one source said to Kotaku. Ultimately, where the other Pacific Division teams opted to move their teams from China back to Korea, the Titans decided it would be easier to just let the entire team go and start fresh. Word came quick yesterday that the Titans already moved on signing five players from the Overwatch Contenders team Second Wind, and presumably, continue on with the season.
The strange story of the Vancouver Titans is yet another misstep for the Overwatch League as a whole, whose original ethos of creating fan-attended homestands and was the major selling point of the league to team investors such as New England Patriots Robert Kraft and NHL team Vancouver Canucks owners Aquilini Entertainment. Now, facing player burnout, numerous big-name retirements, an entire season’s momentum put on hold due to COVID-19, and now one of its best and brightest teams being completely disbanded it’s hard to tell if the Overwatch League will survive another season, let alone survive another week without more misfortune.